Assisted-Suicide Movement Gets a Boost ; Judge's Ruling Upholding an Oregon Law Heightens Debate over Ethics of Right to Die

Article excerpt

Whether a person should be able to take his own life with the help of a medical doctor has become the new battleground for those on either side of the "pro-choice" vs. "pro-life" divide.

Here in Oregon, voters approved a "death with dignity" law - in 1994 and again in 1997, when state lawmakers tried to overturn it. But US Attorney General John Ashcroft argues that prescribing lethal drugs for assisted suicide does not serve a "legitimate medical purpose" - and so violates the federal Controlled Substances Act.

In federal district court this week, the Bush administration (and many conservative members of Congress) lost an important round in the debate.

Federal District Judge Robert Jones ruled against Mr. Ashcroft, rejecting the assertion that the Controlled Substances Act trumps state law and the long-held position that medical practices are to be regulated by states, and not the federal government.

Oregon's law applies only to mentally competent adults who declare their intentions in writing, are diagnosed as terminally ill, and take the prescribed drug themselves orally after a waiting period. The law prohibits "lethal injection, mercy killing, or active euthanasia."

A delicate judgment call

Supporters say such safeguards prevent patients from being pressured to take their own lives (by family members wishing to limit the high cost of prolonged care, for example), or deciding to do so at a low moment or in a violent manner.

"Judge Jones has recognized that sensitive issues of medical judgment should rest with doctors and their patients, not with the federal government," says Estelle Rogers, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center in Washington.

In the years since the law took effect, there apparently have been no abuses, nor have those wishing to kill themselves rushed to Oregon, as critics warned might happen. Only about 25 people a year have taken their lives under the law. Meanwhile, hospice care for those diagnosed with terminal illnesses has increased here.

Conservative groups see the issue as akin to abortion, calling it the taking of human life - something they vigorously oppose. …